Thirty years ago , the Bundestag voted to move from sleepy Bonn to newly unified Berlin. There was a lot of anxiety at the time that the change might signal the emergence of a more nationalist Germany, but even the most apprehensive couldn’t have imagined that the centre of the new-old capital, the historic island in the Spree, would one day see the resurrection of an enormous Prussian royal palace. Defenders of the new palace claim that as home to the Humboldt Forum – a collection of objects from Africa and Asia – it demonstrates Germany’s eagerness to engage in a ‘dialogue of cultures’. This is disingenuous. The building’s façade, sponsored partly by German business and testament to a stifling, philistine cultural climate, is its real message – a coda to the Merkel era.
Conservative West German intellectuals began to argue soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the palace should be rebuilt. It had been destroyed in 1950 on the orders of Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader; only one portal – from which the communist Karl Liebknecht had declared the German Republic in 1918 – was saved and incorporated into the Politbüro building. The site was left empty until the 1970s, when the GDR erected a ‘Palace of the Republic’ – a large modernist box with gold windows which housed not only the country’s powerless parliament, but also restaurants, a bowling alley, various cultural venues (Harry Belafonte and Santana both performed there) and a gallery of artworks under the heading: ‘Are communists allowed to dream?’
In their campaign to have the communist building demolished and the original palace reconstructed, conservatives not only had to defend against the charge that their proposal was triumphalist; they also had to counter the negative associations of Prussian rule. Their response was to claim that the reconstruction was necessary to a proper understanding of the city’s history. Wolf Jobst Siedler, an influential publisher who until his death in 2013 maintained a sideline in diatribes against modernist architecture, declared: ‘The palace was not in Berlin. Berlin was the palace.’ (‘Das Schloss lag nicht in Berlin. Berlin war das Schloss’.) His allies popularised the term Stadtschloss, the suggestion being that the two were inseparable.
This is nonsense. Berlin dates from the mid 13th century; the earliest castle, built by the prince elector of Brandenburg Friedrich II (‘Irontooth’), dates from 1443. It met resistance from the start. Friedrich’s plan to erect a Zwingburg, a real fortress, wasn’t popular with Berliners, who feared the permanent presence of their Landesherr (Friedrich had previously only visited the town sporadically) and flooded the site. Construction went ahead nevertheless. The building on which today’s version is largely based dates from the early 18th century and owes its original design to the Baroque sculptor and architect Andreas Schlüter. Its construction was crucial to the symbolic politics of Friedrich I, who had crowned himself king of Prussia in 1701. Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), though, disliked the building and spent most of his time at Sanssouci, the Rococo palace he had built for himself in Potsdam. In fact, the only ruler who really appears to have enjoyed living in the ‘stony labyrinth’ (and who undertook characteristically tasteless renovations) is Wilhelm II.
Lobbyists for reconstruction argued that the palace had lost its imperial associations after the emperor’s abdication in 1918, when the building was given over to apartments rented by ordinary Bürger and to museums, including one dedicated to Leibesübungen, or physical exercise. They also pointed out that a modern art exhibition had been held there even after the Second World War; the palace had been heavily damaged by bombing, but it remained structurally sound. Perhaps, the Schloss-propagandists suggested, it could become something like the Louvre.
In 1993, a group of private citizens raised money to put up an enormous scaffold hung with printed plates replicating the Baroque façade. The trompe l’oeil wasn’t intended to demonstrate the beauty of Schlüter’s design (which was well known), but to convince Berliners that the boulevard leading up to the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden, needed a massive building at its end to restore the coherence of Mitte and connect up the other great buildings around it. (These include Schinkel’s Altes Museum and the ostentatious Protestant Dome, a Wilhelm II prestige project, but also the Nazi Reichsbank, which is today part of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.) The Palace of the Republic was neither grand enough nor big enough, taking up only part of the original site. The void on the western side of the boulevard was used by turns as a parking lot and a parade ground for the state socialist leadership’s celebrations of itself.
The fake façade made an impression; meanwhile, asbestos had been discovered in the Palace of the Republic. Plans to make it into a genuine Volkshaus – comparable perhaps to the Warsaw Palace of Culture, a Stalinist monstrosity of 1955 which is generally considered a post-1989 urban success story – proved futile. Gerhard Schröder, who oversaw the government’s move to Berlin, gave his support to the royal palace plan, explaining that one had to give ‘the Volk something for the soul’. In 2002 the Bundestag voted in favour of reconstruction with an almost two-thirds majority. As Genosse der Bosse (‘comrade of the bosses’), Schröder probably also liked that business and ‘civil society’ – encouraged by the likes of Henry Kissinger and other prominent palace lobbyists – had promised to contribute substantial amounts.
The driving force behind the reconstruction was a private individual, Wilhelm von Boddien, a Hamburg-based entrepreneur who had made his money in tractors and had a thing for Prussia. His company went bankrupt, but his fantasy for Berlin succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of his supporters. The motion to rebuild the palace didn’t specify how closely the original design had to be followed: that decision was given to a commission of distinguished persons, which held an open competition. The winner was Franco Stella, a relatively obscure Italian architect, who proposed three Baroque façades and a fourth based on razionalismo, the architectural style closely associated with Italian fascism. For Stella’s admirers, the stark contrast between opulent – albeit zombie – Baroque and an austere modernism meant that critics of neo-Prussian historicism had now been ‘included’ in the project; at the same time, they celebrated the design because Schlüter’s gestures to antique Roman models would be continued with a very different kind of italianità.
The form was decided, but the function remained a mystery. The question of what to put inside the huge building was eventually answered by the proposed Humboldt Forum – an exhibition space to be filled by Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and East Asian Art Museum. It was a neat rejoinder to the critics of reconstruction. Wilhelm Humboldt wasn’t just an important philosopher of language, but also a liberal theorist who could hardly be said to connote authoritarianism; even better, his brother Alexander, a naturalist, geographer and self-consciously anti-colonialist explorer, remains popular in Latin America to this day (Cuba has a large Alejandro de Humboldt National Park). In Germany itself, Alexander is held up in popular science and children’s books as a forerunner of climate activism.
It seemed a foolproof plan: a celebration of Bildung, more or less out of historical context, inside a 21st-century Wunderkammer displaying ‘curiosity about the Other’, as Monika Grütters, the Christian Democratic state minister of culture (herself a trained art historian), put it. But then it hit a snag. Opponents charged that many of the objects, long displayed in the remote Dahlem suburb of Berlin and rarely visited, were tainted by a history of colonial violence. The famous Lufboot, for instance, a 52-foot long, elaborately decorated South Pacific vessel which had to be fork-lifted into the palace before the walls could be closed up, had, according to the historian Götz Aly, been surrendered to German colonisers who had rampaged across Papua New Guinea’s New Bismarck Archipelago.
A prominent adviser to the Humboldt Forum, the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, had already resigned in protest in 2017. She claimed that the project had become ‘like Chernobyl’; instead of practising ‘openness’ and ‘multi-perspectivity’, artworks and the question of their origins were to be buried ‘like atomic waste’. Savoy pointed to a fundamental contradiction: the palace proved that historical reversals were possible, but those demanding the restitution of objects robbed by colonial powers were told that history couldn’t be reversed.
The palace was completed in 2020 at a cost of around 700 million euros. Access to the public was delayed until this summer because of the pandemic; the floors displaying the most controversial objects will be opened in the autumn. Curators have gone out of their way to stress that the palace has already fulfilled an important political function in starting a debate about the provenance of museum objects, resulting in the government’s promise to return, among other artefacts, the 13th-century Benin bronzes to Nigeria.
In what feels like overcompensation, the exhibitions that opened this summer, one of them on the theme of ‘global Berlin’, another with the title ‘Elephant – Human – Ivory’, make frequent mention of colonialism and capitalism, and there is an explainer of ‘critical whiteness studies’. Visitors to the ivory exhibition are subjected throughout to an oppressive noise which sounds like heavy breathing – it’s revealed at the end that it is in fact the sound of a dying elephant. Pull-out info boards about Provenienz are marked with red and white stripes, as though visitors need to be warned not to adopt uncritical attitudes towards the displays. In yet another gesture of critical appeasement, the Palace of the Republic is not erased entirely. Some of the original signs have been kept, including one indicating that the bowling alley, the restaurant and the socialist ‘youth meeting point’ are overcrowded – now incongruously installed above a fancy café. A construction kit for a model of the state socialist palace is on sale in the gift shop (alongside T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Alexander, Wilhelm, und ich’, with ‘ich’ in rainbow colours).
Such tokens of ‘inclusion’ on the inside are easily overwhelmed by much larger symbols on the outside – symbols that could easily have been excluded. Most egregious is the dome, topped by a large golden cross. This cupola was added to the palace in the mid 19th century by Friedrich Wilhelm IV as an assertion of the divine right of kings in the face of bourgeois revolution. He complemented the cross with a large inscription in golden letters combining two Biblical verses; it proclaimed then, and proclaims again today, that all humanity must bend the knee to Jesus. His successor, Wilhelm II, the last king of Prussia, insisted that the cupola of the Reichstag, constructed at the end of the 19th century, must not be higher than the palace cross. The Bundestag, eventual successor to the Reichstag, didn’t make a dome mandatory when it voted for reconstruction in 2002; its inclusion was assured by private donors such as the widow of Werner Otto, founder of Germany’s largest mail order company, who was duly honoured with a plaque. Critics of the reconstruction were dismissed with the argument that one must remain faithful to the original – except, presumably, when one needn’t. Siedler wasn’t right – the palace isn’t the city – but, like a gigantic indigestible cream cake, a Sahnetorte, in the words of one critic, it now dominates Mitte, projecting hollow self-importance. There’s no irony here, as there is in the inscription on another Prussian reconstruction, the City Palace at Potsdam, built under Friedrich II and today used as the Brandenburg parliament, which announces: ‘Ceci n’est pas un château.’
It is testament to Germans’ satisfaction with their efforts at Vergangenheitsbewältigung – coming to terms with the Nazi past – that they would tolerate the recreation of such an egregious symbol of royal power. In its lack of imagination, the project is reminiscent of the decision to fill the large void at Potsdamer Platz with bland corporate architecture, a decision decried at the time by Rem Koolhaas and many others.
What does all this have to do with Angela Merkel? She wasn’t in power when the decision was made, and, unlike Helmut Kohl, who studied history and cared a great deal about monuments and museums, she has steadfastly shied away from grand historical gestures (no handholding with French presidents). Indeed she tries to ignore the symbolic dimensions of politics altogether. But the project’s combination of cosmopolitan, ostentatiously self-critical liberalism and a conservative structure built by hard-nosed business is an appropriate monument to Merkel’s Germany, as is the method through which it came about: drawn-out decision-making and baroque political processes that wore down its opponents.
While Merkel’s government has boasted of its role in upholding the ‘international liberal order’, as well as promoting human rights and environmental concerns, German business – especially the enormously powerful car industry – takes pains to ensure that its interests are never endangered by such high-mindedness. Merkel may like to warn against the dangers posed by populists such as Marine Le Pen, but meanwhile her party cosies up to far-right authoritarians like Viktor Orbán, who allow German factories in Hungary to operate with what one observer called ‘Chinese conditions’ – low wages, no trade unions or environmentalist troublemakers, large subsidies – in return for the CDU’s turning a blind eye as Budapest siphons off EU money. What’s more, German leaders, recognising that the country did so well during the European debt crisis because of exports to China, wouldn’t dream of upsetting Beijing; geo-economic interests will also be strong enough to ensure that Putin gets his Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which will enable the Russian regime to bypass (and potentially to blackmail) Ukraine.
Merkel’s potential successor, Armin Laschet, would almost certainly continue what critics have called ‘Merkantilism’. He has a reputation as a jovial Rhinelander and, like Kohl, has made a career out of being underestimated. Like Merkel, he adopts his rivals’ political positions in order to disarm them: he was one of the first Christian Democrats who, as ‘minister of integration’ in North Rhine-Westphalia, sought to move his party away from its anti-immigration stance (earning him the nickname Türken-Armin), and he supported Merkel’s refugee policies in 2015. But he also knows how to finesse his position when it is expedient. In response to the situation in Afghanistan he recently announced that ‘2015 must not be repeated’ and that Germany could not help ‘everybody’ (meaning Germany should not help anybody).
Laschet has looked shaky during the pandemic, erring on the side of premature reopenings and reinforcing his image as a friendly but frivolous carnival character. His argument that Germany needs to become less bureaucratic and adopt digital technology more quickly is a hard sell when his party has been in power for sixteen years. But then again, the contest appears to be about who can be most like Merkel, only more so. The Social Democrats’ candidate, coalition finance minister Olaf Scholz, is running on the promise of being a supremely competent Beamter (civil servant). The Greens, whom overexcited observers once considered capable of winning these elections, are so keen to return to government – possibly in a coalition with Laschet – that they ceased acting as a real opposition during the coalition’s disastrous management of the pandemic. It’s true that their positions vis-à-vis Beijing and Moscow are tougher than Merkel’s, and their climate proposals are of some concern to business. But pragmatism is likely to prevail: in Baden-Württemberg, dominated by Daimler and other export Weltmeister, they have proven themselves reliable, business-friendly partners to the CDU.
Despite the pandemic, the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan and the climate emergency, the election campaign has been placid, reflecting what Germans now refer to as the country’s Bräsigkeit – an untranslatable term, though ‘complacency’ comes close. The country is sorely in need of public investment: its infrastructure is decaying, the internet often embarrassingly slow. The eerie calm only confirms Merkel’s influence on the way democracy itself is understood in Germany: as a series of small technocratic adjustments and a vehicle for the promotion of Zusammenhalt, ‘cohesion’, a term which has had an extraordinary trajectory in German public discourse and which is today the mantra of all parties.
This stance – moderation über alles – will eventually also find symbolic expression right next to the Prussian Disneyland. In the space where a statue of Wilhelm I once stood, a ‘participatory’ National Monument to Freedom and Unity is being installed, celebrating the East German revolution of 1989. It will take the shape of a gigantic golden bowl with the words ‘We are the people, We are one people’ inscribed on its surface. As many as 1400 people will be able to clamber onto what its designers call a ‘kinetic art object’: the monument will tilt if there are twenty ‘participants’ more on one side than the other – demonstrating, needless to say, the power of the people. But it is clearly better if everyone remains in the middle, maintaining a constant equilibrium, taking no risks at the edges.